Architecture, Heritage-trails, History

Ponniyin Selvan – The story of the Cholas

Have you come across a work of historical fiction that has fascinated generations for decades? That has seen many editions by publishers after 70 years of being in print. A work of fiction that has inspired thousands to become amateur archaeologists and history buffs? The novel I speak about is the reason I delved deeper into history, especially that of South India. It covers all its facets- architecture, epigraphy, iconography, literature, music and dance.

Ponniyin Selvan, a novel in Tamil authored by Kalki Krishnamurti (who was actively involved in India’s independence movement), has become immortal. It is the highest-selling piece of fiction in Tamil even today. 

The powerful narration of the landscape takes us on a journey with the hero. It captivates the readers and transports them to the glorious times of the Cholas, one of the most powerful dynasties of South India in the 10th-13th Centuries.   

The novel describes the expansion of the power of the Cholas. Crown prince Aditya Karikala waged war against their long-time rival Vira Pandya, the Pandya king of Madurai. He defeated him in the battle at Sevur and killed him. The defeated Pandyas wait for their revenge and plot to kill the Prince. Aditya’s younger brother Arunmozhi Varman, who would never have thought that fate would make him one of the most remarkable emperors of South India, was on a mission to expand his territory across the ocean on the island of Sri Lanka. 

Vanthiyathevan, Aditya Karikalan’s loyal friend and a carefree warrior, carries the message of his master’s victory from Kanchi to Tanjore.

The plot opens with Vanthithevan entering the Chola country on the festive day of Aadi Perukku. Depicted through his eyes is the beauty of the region. He finds himself in the middle of many conspiracies, wins the heart of the Chola princess Kundavai and gains the trust and friendship of Arunmozhi Varman. Crown prince Aditya is assassinated by the vengeful Pandyas with the help of insiders. While the people of the Chola country want Arunmozhi Varman to be their next King, he graciously passes the throne to his uncle Uttama Chola, to whom it rightfully belongs.

The novel ends by highlighting this incident. The author hopes this ending will inspire others to write based on historical events.

The region from which the Cholas ruled comprised Tanjore, Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur, and Ariyalur. These are district names of modern days and are thriving centres for art, culture, history and religion. The hundreds of temples the Cholas built with the finest architectural eye, sculptures that depict many episodes from Indian epics, paintings, and scores of inscriptions give us the minutest details. It reveals to us the names of kings, queens, ministers, warriors, musicians, dancers, artists and the socio-political, economic, and administrative systems.

The names Vanthiyathevan, Aditya Karikalan, Kundavai, Arunmozhi Varman and many others etched in the inscriptions of Chola temples tell us much more than the novel. 

In the past several decades, many Tamil filmmakers attempted to adapt Ponniyin Selvan into a movie. The scale and the resources required for the project made it an impossible task thus far.

This wait finally comes to an end! //On 30th September 2022, renowned filmmaker Maniratnam will release the first part of Ponniyin Selvan.// This two-part movie began filming in December 2019 and features some of the finest actors in Indian cinema. 

I am privileged to be a part of this film as its research consultant. It is an honour to work with the greatest filmmakers in India. 

In 2009, a group of friends and I travelled along the path of Vanthiyathevan, the hero of Ponniyin Selvan. Then onwards, I researched and explored the magnificent landscapes of South India that deserve better attention. Keeping this in mind, I curate and conduct cultural tours across South India. 

Of the many cultural immersions at Courtyard Tours, the Chola trail is among the most preferred. It does not come as a surprise. The region has three Chola temples that are UNESCO world heritage sites, hundreds of temples of the era with active worship for centuries, complemented by music and dance festivals, crafts, textiles, and communities that bring history alive.

Join us to explore the Chola region with Courtyard Tours!